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Friday Night Lights: Travis Airman leads in the community through football

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Joseph Swafford
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

On fall Friday nights, many towns across America to include communities around Travis Air Force Base, California, come together under the bright lights to enjoy high school football. Something that is unique for one local high school: their head coach is an active duty Airman.

Last year when Vacaville Christian High School decided to bring back their football program after a two-year break, they hired Tech. Sgt. Manny Tarango, 660th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron composite tool kit NCO in charge, who, at the time, was the defensive coordinator at Vanden High School.

With the decision, not only did VCHS get an up and coming high school coach, they got an Airman with 15 years of military experience to lead their student-athletes.

“I tell my football players all the time it's a bigger calling that not a lot of people understand or can relate to,” said Tarango. “I came into the military because I saw the effects of 9/11; I wanted to be a part of fixing that. Here I am 15 years later, and it's who I am. I wouldn't be here coaching and having this opportunity to impact lives if I never came into the military.”

Tarango, or Coach T as his players call him, uses his position as a coach and an Airman to make an impact both on and off the field.

“He's impacted my life,” said Tamani Williams, VCHS starting running back and cornerback. “I know he’s impacted former players who weren't strong in school, but they trusted him to get them places, and he got them there. Coach T has a message that you never let anyone tell you that you are something that you're not. Be what you want to be and don't let anybody change that.”

“He has supported me through my whole career and still does today," said Tech. Sgt. Kevin Mikos, 660th AMXS. “He is the first person I go to for a different perspective on situations that I face daily. His mentorship is something I cannot put into words because of how much he has pushed me in the right direction throughout my career. I can honestly say that I would not be sitting here today without the mentorship from him.”

Being an Airman, head coach and family man is a balancing act that Tarango has successfully navigated.

“His ability to balance his family life and his football life and how passionate and devoted he is has inspired me,” said Justin Moyer, VCHS football team assistant coach. “He’s devoted to his work and his family, but he's also devoted to the coaching staff and the football players. He always seems to make time for us and the kids, whether he's bringing his daughter to practice with us or helping the coaches with anything we might need.”

“It's a juggle; you have to find a balance,” said Tarango. “The mission comes first. You're an Airman first, but you know you also have another mission when you get home and that's supporting the young men that are in your charge. It's a task in itself, but you make it work.”

Tarango has received a lot of support on his journey to become a head coach and has always had his leadership in his corner.

“My leadership is tremendous. They even come out to the football games and show their support,” said Tarango. “They know how passionate I am about it and they understand the opportunity that's at my hand to work in the community and be able to try and get these young men into college. They also know that at a moment's notice, I'm ready to deploy to fulfill my deployment commitment. I’ve always met my missions as a flyer. If I had to go into work early to get something done I did; if I had to stay late, I stayed late.”

One thing that has helped shape Tarango’s philosophy as a coach and an Airman are his deployment experiences. He deployed six times supporting operations around the world as a KC-10 Extender flying crew chief.

“On one deployment, we had supported over 114 troops in contact,” he said. “That kind of puts things into perspective. It's not a training mission. You know you're deployed, and you're fighting a war, but when you see how many Soldiers and Marines that you're supporting, it changes your outlook on life.”

Tarango has been able to lean on his 15 years of military experience to become a more balanced head coach.

“I was put into a lot of leadership positions early without necessarily having the rank,” he said. “You have to learn how to take care of people because everybody comes from different walks of life. I'm only 33 so you know it wasn't too long ago that I was a young man, so I remember some of the things and struggles that I went through and I can still relate to them and help guide them through issues in their lives.”

Growing up, Tarango’s mom didn’t allow him to play football. If it weren’t for a work trip that took her out of town, his journey to become a head coach wouldn’t have happened.

“I started playing when I was about eight or nine years old,” said Tarango. “My mom went out of town and my dad kind of snuck me over to the Boys and Girls Club to get me signed up. It was ultimately a life-altering decision that I'm glad my dad did, as he got me that opportunity to start playing and I fell in love with the game, and I'm still here.”

“I like what the game does for a young man because I know for myself,” he continued. “I came from a disciplined household, but I also played with a lot of teammates that came from broken homes and no discipline in the home. These kids just needed nurturing and love and just basically shown how to be a young man, and football delivered that.”

Being a head coach hasn’t been a quick process for Tarango, and he understands the hard work that it takes to get to where he is at.

“You hear that phrase, ‘he's an overnight success,’ a lot,” said Tarango. “This wasn't an overnight success. This has been hours and hours and hours of working on your craft for 15 years doing it from the bottom up. I think that that carries a little bit of respect; a little bit of weight versus someone that just came from a reputable program and say ‘hey, here do it again.’ I never wanted anything to be given to me. I wanted to work for everything, and we've worked at every single level, and that's brought us here.”

VCHS started the season with a loss and then went on a four-game winning streak, before losing their last two games. For a first-year program, they have had success, but winning games isn’t their only priority.

“Coach T is not just about winning,” said Williams. “He's more concerned of making sure that you're strong individually and keeping everybody together.”

“It's not just the X's and O's and winning football games and having success,” said Tarango. “I'm teaching them how to be men. There's a lot of young men out there that don't have father figures. You spend so much time with them, hours and hours at a time and they learn to confide in you. They get bumps, they get bruises and have life issues just like you do. You get an opportunity to talk about drugs and alcohol, and you also get an opportunity to talk about struggling in school, home violence and domestic violence. Being a coach is a good way to make an impact immediately.”

Though there has been a lot of sacrifices being an Airman and head coach, Tarango wouldn’t have it any other way, and under the bright lights on Friday nights, it’s where he wants to be.

“Football to me means passion, love and joy,” said Tarango. “It’s about the relationships that you build with your players and coaches, the effect that it has on your community, your life and the life of others.”